By Harper Harris
Andi Watson is a British cartoonist whose work has spanned from projects such as Dark Horse’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer to his creator owned work like Skeleton Key. In recent years, he’s moved into more youth-oriented material like Glister and Gum Girl.
Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula, his newest original graphic novel from First Second, centers on the title princess, and her struggles to run the monster-filled Underworld, in the wake of her layabout father doing little else than eating and complaining. After her father fires the chef, Princess Decomposia replaces him with a vampire baking whiz named Count Spatula. Their budding relationship is told within the pages of Watson’s latest offering.
I had an opportunity to sit down with Watson about the genesis of this new work, monsters, cooking, and his creative process.
What were your biggest influences on Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula? What was its genesis for you?
My biggest drive was to create an original graphic novel front to back. After a couple of decades of making comics I had never actually made a single volume that was over sixty-odd pages or hadn’t been serialised. I felt like it was a challenge I hadn’t overcome yet, and after making a lot of comics over the years, finding something fresh is always welcome. I also wanted to tell a story that combined the relationship and romance side of my work with fun genre things to draw. I’ve kind of flipped between the two, but in this book I put them together. So it was satisfying to write and a pleasure to draw.
How would you compare the process of working on Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula with your works just previous like Gum Girl or the Glister books?
I guess they are all stories with a beginning, middle and an end. That was good training before stepping into a hundred-and-sixty page book. I find figuring out structure and pacing beforehand really helps me. With Gum Girl it was with twenty page stories and I found that discipline really useful. Being concise is a handy skill in comics, and it helped keep me on track. What set this book and Glister apart from Gum Girl was the lack of a long gestation period. I find I do my best work by knuckling down and just getting on with a story. When I’m drawing the pages and am ‘in the zone’ I don’t want any hold ups. Delays of even a few days make it harder to get back to ‘peak fitness’ so I prefer to keep my head down and keep working. That doesn’t always fit in with the publishing process but it’s how I’m best able to concentrate and maintain focus.
Compared to Gum Girl, Princess Decomposia has a bit more of stripped down artistic style (particularly being in black and white), why that choice?
Funnily enough, if you look at the Gum Girl line art, they’re quite stripped down too. That’s because it’s a colour book and I wanted to have lots of open shapes to hold the colour and little to no black. Working with colour meant spending a lot of time squinting at a computer screen and I wanted to cut that back with Princess Decomposia. I aimed to have as much of the work complete on the page as possible – including the lettering – and as it’s set in the Underworld, the black and white art is appropriate. I was also determined to work on the pace and rhythm of the pages rather than get bogged down in rendering realistic stonework. If the reader is absorbing and understanding the story without even realising it, then I’ve done a good job. The art is there to tell the story, not draw attention to itself. Having said that, the most satisfying aspect of drawing a comic is bringing a character to life, getting their body language and facial expressions right. If I do that and do it concisely, so much the better.
What was your process in writing this book? Did you have a set place you wanted to the story to end up, or did you let the characters run with the themes you determined?
Starting a new book is the hardest part of the whole process. I find it intimidating. The beginning is always made up of page after page of scribbled notes. I might have characters, but no story, or an interesting setting, but no characters. Everything has to mesh and the themes grow organically out of the material. Plot and character have to interact and shape each other. It’s a bit like pushing a very heavy bicycle up a steep hill. At a critical point I know I have enough and the story starts to come together and I can cycle down the other side of hill. I like to have a structure in place and an ending. I make sure I have room to maneuver and if new and better ideas, or a better ending occur to me, I can incorporate that into the story.
A good deal of your work centers on female protagonists, particularly in your all-ages titles, what draws your creative voice to the opposite gender so often?
I guess it began way back when I made Skeleton Key. That was a reaction to what was on the shelves at the time: few female characters wearing fewer clothes. That’s changed quite a bit, not only are there more female characters but many more female creators. But I do enjoy drawing women and because gender stereotypes are pushed so heavily on women, I think they provide more dramatic story opportunities. Want to write a female physicist, plumber or warrior? That’s a story in itself.
Although done in an all-ages style, Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula definitely explores some grown-up problems…stress of work, delegating, the relationship with an older parent. Did you find maintaining a balance between the conflicts and the style difficult?
I think Princess Decomposia’s experience is one that kids and adults can relate to. A princess has a certain amount of privilege, but that is countered by her many responsibilities. A child understands having a parent in their life telling them what to do. An adult sees the responsibilities in their life that constrain their freedoms. The Princess is stuck between being a child and an adult and the story is about how she navigates that. I think a good story can appeal to everyone, there are different things that different age groups pick up on, stuff sitting under the surface.
You say in the back of the book that you make comics for “grown-ups and children and those somewhere in between.” What has led you down that unique path? Is it difficult to try to appeal to both children and adults?
It’s possible to make a book that appeals to both audiences, and it’d be nice to think that a parent and their child could find something to appeal to them in the same comic. It’s possible in movies and animation if you look at what Pixar have created, and I always return to Ghibli and their films as the best examples of that. As for myself, I’ve made books for kids and grown ups and enjoyed both. Breakfast After Noon was as challenging to make as Glister. They were equally fulfilling. I enjoy trying new things and although it makes career sense to find a niche and dig in, I’ve worked in different genres and looked for fresh challenges. That’s what keeps me interested in the medium, the freedom to work in different ways and tell all kinds of stories.
What were your inspirations for the designs and personalities of the characters, in particular the Princess, the Count, and the King?
The Princess arrived quite quickly in my sketchbooks. I knew I wanted iconic designs for the characters, being able to recognise them from their silhouettes. She has the distinctive bat-wing hair and puritan collar and cuffs in a nod to Wednesday Addams. The Count is a chef, so his outfit is the usual hat, jacket, necktie and checked trousers. He also has the smooth bald head and pointed ears like Nosferatu … his skin probably sparkles a bit too, like a sugar cube in sunlight. The King was tricky in that I needed him to look both old and healthy. So the shape of his face is rounded but within that he’s rather wizened. He also has the crown, so again, he’s recognisable from his outline.
Looking at your past works, you seem to have a soft spot for monsters, working on books like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hellboy, among others. Where did this love for monsters come from?
The monsters go even further back than that. There was a quilt monster, giant cat and hockey-playing Chinese hopping-vampires in Skeleton Key. The short answer is that they’re a lot of fun to come up with and a welcome change to draw. If my main characters are ‘human’ shaped then it’s a nice gear change to draw something unusual. And monsters are fun to write, even more so when they’re the protagonists, as in Princess Decomposia.
You also have done some coming of age and slice-of-life style stories…how did you decide to combine real life problems with the gothic setting of Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula?
The story and themes came naturally out of the characters. If the Princess is a dutiful daughter then I find it interesting to dig in and explore the relationships. If she has a certain kind of dynamic with her father then how will she react to Count Spatula? This spills out into the supporting characters like Clove the sous chef. If one character is overworked then Clove is the one who appears to have the balance right. It all goes into making the characters interesting and giving their actions a real-life foundation that readers can relate to.
Although a lot of the cooking in the book is fantastical in nature, did you do any research on cooking? I think what I’m really trying to ask here is… Andi, are you fond of cooking?
I’m a lousy cook but an enthusiastic baker. Nothing super fancy, but I began when my daughter was little and we’d have fun making fairy cakes and covering the kitchen with flour. I’d recommend it as a way to get into baking, there’s no pressure, it’s enjoyable and even a slightly scorched rock cake is delicious. Time is a consideration, so I don’t have hours to spend on delicate confections, but I love making cookies, cakes, tray bakes and buns. Those recipes are hard to mess up.
What made First Second Press the best place to publish Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula? How did all of this fall into place on the publishing side?
In retrospect it was a big risk making an entire graphic novel without a publisher on board and it wasn’t until it was finished that I began to look around and get an idea of my options. Because First Second are graphic novel publishers, have a strong record with books for different age groups and have published things like Anya’s Ghost, I decided to give them a go. I thought they’d be a good fit, but publishing being the contrary beast it is, figured they’d give it a pass. I was delighted when they decided to go with it, and against expectations, things moved really quickly. I’ve really enjoyed working with the team there, it’s been a delight.
For readers of Princess Depcomposia, what are you hoping is their key takeaway from your work here?
I hope it’s a fun and entertaining read for everyone, with attractive art and a sweet story. I’d also like to think that there’s more than that under the surface for those who want to come back for seconds.
What are your future plans after this big release?
I have a webcomic, Princess at Midnight that finishes at the end of January. It’s been years in the making, a kind of Game of Thrones for kids, about sibling rivalry in a fantasy world. I’m hoping to find a publisher for that as it’d be lovely to get it in print. I’ve also completed a graphic novel for grown ups that I hope to find a home for this year. As for new stuff, I’ve finished writing a new spooky graphic novel that I’ll start drawing soon. And if Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula finds an audience, I’d love to do more with those characters.
Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula is available from First Second in book retailers near you on February 24th.